Sunday, August 13, 2017

Unilateral Action in a Multi-Polar World

Right before our eyes, the world has lost its goddamned mind. America's agencies are reducing resources to counter cyberattacks, which is problematic for our allies because we created the systems they're using, along with the backdoors and security deficiencies. To make matters worse, America is dissuading anyone flying on certain Middle Eastern airlines from bringing laptops, which basically shuts down all business class travel--the most profitable seats--on those airlines unilaterally deemed unsafe. Journalists everywhere discuss America's reduced role in the world, and all seems lost for non-isolationists.

Except it's all a brilliant ploy--if Machiavelli is your role model. Without "free" government cybersecurity help, foreign governments have to pay American security companies more money to help them, increasing American economic strength. Those airlines that aren't up to "code"? Well, they'll just have to hire American defense contractors to help them--for a major fee and multi-year servicing contract, of course. Oh, and if certain Middle Eastern countries don't want to play ball in the foreign policy department, we'll demand our more compliant allies bar their airplanes from flying the friendly skies, and just for good measure, institute an economic blockade (here's looking at you, Qatar). 

America is going to rule the world again while shifting costs to our allies. Take that, China. (Don't worry, Mexico, we haven't forgotten about the wall we want you to pay for.) 

Except it's all a terrible idea. At a time when we desperately need more, not less global cooperation, America has chosen to increase hostility. Does anyone know the rules of engagement for cyber warfare? One expert writes that as long as the costs of cyber warfare, including from North Korea and China, don't exceed 2% of GDP, America will not escalate to the physical realm. I imagine the day will come when a politician moves the bar to 3% because we can't predict the outcome if we actually act on our threat to directly attack countries that violate the stated threshold. What's the point of NATO and all the long-term defense contracts being bought if no one can figure out how to create a basic framework for cyberdefense with every ally and customer on the same page? 

What happened to the idea that corporations can think short-term because of rapidly changing competitive issues, but governments exist to act as a counterbalance, to impose order and institutional long-term knowledge? Without being able to formulate the "rules of the game," even in areas that are dead center in the American government's bailiwick, what is the use of government anyway? 

Also, does anyone in the current administration realize unilateral action no longer works in a multi-polar world? America's current Middle Eastern ploy is to encourage China to buy American LNG rather than Qatari LNG by making China's status quo contingent on interfering with a Saudi-led economic blockade against Qatar. (Say that five times fast.) 

If America and its allies try to isolate Qatar, NK, and Iran in 2017, they can still go to Russia or even Turkey, and that's where global politics becomes really interesting. Once major countries get involved in other major countries' political maneuvers in unexpected ways, there's no set playbook. China has wisely decided to use economic statecraft rather than military force to increase its influence, and it appears America will try to make China's economic alliances more complex. What's the endgame here? 

I don't know if any major country has good answers to the current chaotic situation, but chaos, even at a slow burn, should not be the status quo. Perhaps less assurances of stability will spur other countries to beef up their own cybersecurity and military prowess or to pay American corporations more money to do it for them. Maybe it will reduce the need for America's involvement as the world's police patrol, though with most commercial goods still needing transport across various oceans, I doubt the U.S. Navy will be less necessary. 

The problem with chaos as politics is one never knows the end result with any reasonable certainty. Greater disorder may act as a virus compelling white blood cells to multiply--resulting in better protection against the same or similar issues--or it may overwhelm the entire system, creating more and more splinters (Syria, anyone?). It seems current American officials are betting chaos will promote independently prophylactic behavior, or at least an admission that following America's military--and paying for the privilege--is better than going at it alone. Let's hope they are smarter than we are.

Bonus: from Kamrava's Qatar: Small State, Big Politics (2013). 

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